Rendered in the first person with the tone of a memoir, Michael Ondaatje’s fine new novel, The Cat’s Table, tells the story of three Sri Lankan boys nearing adolescence and the 21-day journey they undertake to England in 1954. As they ride the luxury liner Oronsay, the young characters’ thirst for adventure is emboldened by an absence of adult supervision. The resulting mischief and misadventure is part Tom-and-Huck-style shenanigans and part foreshadowing of the dislocating expatriate life that awaits them. Surrounded by cultural attitudes they have never been exposed to in their rural upbringing, Michael, Cassisus and Ramidhan find themselves fascinated, alienated or both by every encounter.
The titular Cat’s Table refers to the protagonists’ low-status seating assignment in the ship’s main dining hall. Nevertheless, the boys’ tablemates form a rich and varied template for new experiences, including the slightly seedy jazz enthusiast Mr. Mazzapa, the pigeon-toting enigma Ms. Lasquetti and the horticultural expert Mr. Daniels, who provides entrée into a secret garden in the bowels of the ship.
Ultimately, events taking place on their voyage will resonate throughout the boys’ adult lives. During Ondaatje’s final chapters, revelations about the journey call into question both the objectivity of memory and the value of sublimating traumatic experiences.